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Just Another Ethnic Group

By Linda Chavez

March 14, 2001
Copyright 2001 © THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

Ms. Chavez, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, is author of "Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation" (Basic Books, 1992).

Last week's news from the Census Bureau that Hispanics have overtaken blacks as the nation's largest minority group made headlines across the country. But what do the underlying numbers really mean, especially in light of this week's census data that show a growing number of Americans are of mixed racial and ethnic background?

Hispanics, who now number 35.5 million, or 12% of the population, are among the most heterogenous of ethnic groups. They hail from some two dozen nations and, as the bureau reminds us in all its reports, may be of any race. Indeed the term Hispanic -- or the more politically correct "Latino" -- is of fairly recent vintage. The bureau adopted "Hispanic origin" in the 1980 census after having tried several other terms to describe thepopulation, including "Spanish-speaking" and "Spanish-surnamed." In 1930, the bureau even attempted to classify those of Mexican origin as a separate racial group, until Mexican-American civil-rights groups and the Mexican government protested.

Climbing the Ladder

Hispanics themselves prefer to be called by their national origin -- Mexican, Cuban, Salvadoran, etc. -- according to the most comprehensive poll on the subject, the Latino National Political Survey, taken in the mid-1990s. But even these distinctions mask what may be the most significant division in the Hispanic population: the difference between Hispanics born in the U.S. and the some 10 million foreign-born who migrated here over the past 20 years.

Almost 60% of all Hispanics living in the U.S. were born here, but among the adult population only about half are American-born. These include descendants of the some 100,000 inhabitants of the territory acquired in 1848 after Mexico lost its war against the U.S. But most U.S.-born Hispanics trace their ancestry back only a few generations to the influx of immigrants who left Mexico after the Mexican revolution in the early 1900s or even more recently.

Mexican-Americans make up about two-thirds of the overall Hispanic population and have, for the most part, achieved solid lower-middle to middle class status. Despite the hand-wringing over Hispanic school drop-out rates, for example, U.S.-born Mexican-Americans in the youngest cohorts are almost as likely as non-Hispanic whites of the same age to have completed high school. And according to studies by California researcher Gregory Rodriguez, about half of all U.S.-born Hispanics living in southern California own their homes.

Nonetheless, most studies of Hispanics fail to distinguish between the national-origin groups that make up the population or, more importantly, between U.S.-born and foreign-born groups. The Census Bureau's recent report on the Hispanic population, for example, notes that about 13 million are immigrants, but then lumps this group of relative newcomers in with those born here when reporting poverty rates, income, education, and all other social and economic indicators.

Like most immigrants throughout American history, Hispanics tend to start on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and climb slowly upward over several generations. Fewer than half of foreign-born Hispanics have completed high school, for example, which means their earnings will likely remain substantially lower than average and their poverty rates will be higher than those of other groups. When the government reports, as it did in the study released last week, that 23% of Hispanics live in poverty compared with only 7.7% of non-Hispanic whites, the figures are misleading, since they understate the poverty of foreign-born Hispanics and overstate it for the U.S.-born.

The real question is: Will Hispanic immigrants repeat the success of previous newcomers and become fully integrated into the social and economic mainstream over time? Some researchers, most notably Harvard's George Borjas, worry that recent immigrants come with such low skills that they will never catch up. Others note that the proximity of their homeland and the constant influx of their compatriots make it difficult for Hispanic immigrants to assimilate. Certainly, these factors play some role in whether today's Hispanic immigrants will follow in the footsteps of yesterday's Italian, Jews and other groups.

But even more important changes have occurred since the last huge wave of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, and these changes will play a bigger role in moving Hispanic immigrants into the mainstream. America is a more open society than it has ever been, making opportunity nearly universally available. Immigrants today don't face the daunting discrimination that prevailed in the past. Indeed, some studies show that U.S. employers may actually prefer immigrant labor over native-born -- not because immigrants work for less, but because they are more likely to show up on time, and be highly motivated and respectful.

Indeed, the most legitimate worry about recent Hispanic immigrants -- that they are slow to learn English -- may be a thing of the past. Adults who immigrate, especially those who come late in life with little schooling, often fail to become fully proficient in English no matter how long they live here. The same was true of previous generations of immigrants from Europe. But the children of immigrants have traditionally learned English as soon as they attended school.

That is, until some Hispanic activists starting in the late 1960s demanded that Hispanic children be taught in Spanish in public schools. For more than 30 years, the federal government and many states not only encouraged, but insisted, that Hispanic immigrants be taught in their native language. But bilingual education, as it was misnamed, was for many a Spanish-only education that slowed the integration of Hispanic youngsters into English-speaking society.

Thanks to the efforts of immigrant parents and the financial support of California businessman Ron Unz, Spanish-language instruction has been replaced by English immersion programs in California and Arizona after voters in those states adopted ballot measures eliminating so-called bilingual education. So far, the results from California, which passed its initiative in 1998, have been impressive. Not only are Hispanic childrenlearning English quickly, but their scores in other subjects have improved as well -- by double-digits in those districts that adopted the most intensive English-language programs. It is only a matter of time before other states catch on that children -- including Hispanics -- will learn English faster if they are actually taught in the language.

Intermarriage Rate

On most counts, Hispanics show great promise of becoming just another American ethnic group, like the Italians, Irish, Germans, and others who make up the great majority of Americans. Perhaps the single greatest indicator of this phenomenon is the intermarriage rate of Hispanics with non-Hispanic whites, which is now about one-third of the young, U.S.-born Hispanic population. And how will we classify the children of these unions? No wonder the Census Bureau has had to add so many categories to its choices of racial and ethnic groups, which in the 2000 census listed a possible 126 combinations.

So long as we think of Hispanics as a single minority group, along with blacks, we will miss the great diversity within the Hispanic population. Moreover, we will miss the most important fact about this rapidly growing group: They are fast becoming simply us.

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